Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Roman coin found in Sandby fort posthole

Monday, August 18th, 2014

Archaeologists have found a Roman gold coin in a posthole from one of the homes in Sandby ringfort. The coin is a solidus from the reign of Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III in a design struck towards the latter part of his rule, 440-455 A.D. This is a find of great importance for Sandby, because it’s evidence that might help explain what happened there.

Sandby is a ringfort on Öland, an island off the southeastern coast of Sweden, that was built and destroyed during the turbulent Scandinavian Migration Period (400 – 550 A.D.). It was first discovered in 2010 when two looting pits appeared, alerting archaeologists to the pressing need to survey the area before depredations ruined the context. Come summer, the spot was surveyed with metal detectors and four caches of glass millefiori beads, small silver bells meant to be worn as part of a necklace of a bracelet, finger rings, gilt bronze and silver buckles of very high quality were found. Other artifacts were found scattered around the site.

The next year excavations began. They revealed that an event of deathly violence had struck the fort in the 5th century. Its defensive high walls were overrun, the homes inside destroyed, its inhabitants killed and left to rot where they fell. Five bodies were found inside just one dwelling, all of them bearing marks of sharp force trauma. Only 2% of the site has been excavated, and the remains of about 10 people have already been found. So the residents were killed, their homes, warehouses and barns levelled, but the authors of this destruction left the expensive jewelry and gold behind. A raid for lucre wouldn’t have overlooked shallowly buried hoards and wouldn’t have killed everyone before they could reveal their hiding places.

Leaving the bodies in the open to decay was a deliberate choice, perhaps a warning to others, and it was an effective one since nobody occupied the fort again. That’s what makes this find so exceptional: a moment of destruction has been frozen in time for archaeologists to study like forensic units study a crime scene.

The solidus may be a key witness. About 360 solidi have been found on Öland, but they were stumbled upon, mainly during the plowing of fields, not excavated. This is the first solidus to have been unearthed in its original archaeological context: one of the homes where human remains were discovered. These coins were used by the Roman Empire to pay its mercenaries. One of the theories about what happened at Sandby is that it was home to returning soldiers rather than farmers grouped together for self-defense like the other ringforts on the island. Seen as a threat by their neighbors, they were raided, killed and left as a cautionary tale to any other mercenaries who might consider banding together and using their military skills to interfere with the pre-existing communities.

Another theory is that it was the violent resolution of a feud.

“We think it may have been the reason for the massacre at the Sandby Borg fort. And this is the only coin that wasn’t taken,” [lead archaeologist Helena Victor] explained.

“We found it on the edge of a posthole in the house. So maybe the robbers came to take the treasure there, and maybe they ripped the bag and one coin fell down into the posthole in the floor, and there it remained.” [...]

“I think that the money was a good excuse to end a feud. So there was probably a feud, this was a very strong statement, not just a normal robbery- an excruciatingly evil statement to kill these people and just leave them,” Victor explained.

“It was truly shameful. So to make a real statement you forbid them to burn the bodies. There are still memories 1,500 years later of these events, it’s a dangerous place. Parents tell their children that they can’t play there because it’s a dangerous place. They don’t remember the history but they remember it’s dangerous.”

It looks to me like the coin was pierced which suggests that it was worn as jewelry at some point. Instead of being in bag, it could have been on a string around someone’s neck and fell into the posthole when it was unceremoniously separated from that neck by force.

After conservation and further study, the coin will go on display in the Glimpses from Sandby borg exhibition at the Kalmar County Museum in southeast Sweden. The mini-exhibition opened last month after visitors clamored for news about the fort and its treasures. Mostly the exhibition uses images and text to tell the story, presenting some of the theories about the fate of Sandby, but there are a few artifacts on display — 30 glass beads, an iron spearhead almost two feet long. The coin will be joining them this fall.

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Official War Dept. art from Western Front digitized

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

When the United States joined World War I, the War Department commissioned eight accomplished artists to go to France with the American Expeditionary Forces and sketch what they saw. Illustrators William James Aylward, Walter Jack Duncan, Harvey Thomas Dunn, George Matthews Harding, Wallace Morgan, Harry Everett Townsend, architect and etcher J. André Smith, and illustrator and muralist Ernest Clifford Peixotto were given the rank of captain in tn the Army Corps of Engineers and sent to the Western Front in 1918.

This was the first time the US put official artists in the field and the AEF artists had a specifically documentary brief. Their job was to make a visual record of the people and activities on the front lines.

Throughout 1918, prior to the war’s end in November, the artists produced some 700 works, ranging from charcoal sketches to completed ink or watercolor compositions. Bart Hacker, a curator at the National Museum of American History, says the artists depicted four types of scenes: soldier life (washing up, meal time); combat, aftermaths of war (destroyed churches, devastated fields); and technology. In one image, wounded men carry the fallen through trenches and barbed wire. In another, soldiers on horseback travel through a destroyed French village. Notably, Hacker says, the artists did not depict dead bodies.

That isn’t entirely true. They did not depict Allied dead, perhaps, but there are German dead. No blood or gore, however, not even in the field hospital scenes or in combat actions. So their work was meant to document the front, yes, but not the horrors of war in an explicit or even impressionistic way. These images were going to be shown to the public, after all, and bodies torn apart by artillery don’t really sell a war or reassure worried loved ones.

When the artists completed their sketches and watercolors, the pieces were sent to the War Department in Washington, D.C. where some of them were exhibited immediately. Works deemed to be incomplete were kept for the artists to finish upon their return. In January of 1920, the collection was given to the Smithsonian for exhibition. The drawings were put in storage in 1929 and have only been exhibited a handful of times since then.

This year’s centenary of the start of World War I has brought new attention to these works. The American History Museum has digitized the Smithsonian’s collection (there are a few pieces in other museums) and made them available for browsing in high resolution on its website. They may go on public display once again in 1917, the centennial of America’s entry into the war.

While I’m on the subject of the Smithsonian and digitization, the institution has just launched a massive transcription project asking volunteers to sift through millions of images of documents, artifacts and natural history specimens in its collection and transcribe them to make these invaluable resources searchable. Beta testers took days to convert handwritten notes and archives into searchable text that would have taken Smithsonian employees months to complete.

All you have to do is register here, then activate your account by clicking the link in an email they send you and setting your password. Once you’re logged in, go to the Transcription Center and pick your project. Quite a few of the first round of projects are complete but you should look through them anyway because you can enjoy the transcripts which can be browsed page by page or downloaded in their entirety. You can transcribe pages that haven’t been done yet or you can review transcriptions that others have done.

A few open projects on my short list:

Archives Center – NMAH, Charles Francis Hall on his 1860 journey to the north, exploring western Greenland.
National Anthropological Archives – Horatio Hale’s notes on the vocabulary of more than a dozen West and Central African languages spoke by slaves in Rio de Janeiro and on their facial scarification.
Smithsonian Institution Libraries – Mary Smith’s Commonplace Book Concerning Science and Mathematics manuscript about science, math, medicine, religion, etc. written around 1769-1780.

Bookmark the site and check back regularly for new projects.

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Plough turns up rare Pictish symbol stone

Thursday, August 7th, 2014



In May of last year, a farmer ploughing a field in Dandaleith, near Craigellachie in northeastern Scotland, encountered an intriguing obstacle. The landowner reported to the authorities that he had “broken his plough on a rather large stone with some sort of carving on one side,” but he was underestimating it. The solid pink granite stone actually has carvings on two sides, which makes it rare, and those sides are adjacent, which may make it unique.

Experts found that the boulder, which is nearly five and a half feet long and weighs almost 1,500 pounds, is a Class I Pictish Symbol Stone, meaning it’s an unshaped stone incised with symbols but no cross. This is the earliest type of symbol stone, and the Dandaleith Stone may date to as early as 500 A.D. The symbols on one face are an eagle with a crescent and V-rod underneath it. On the adjacent face there’s a mirror case symbol (a circle atop a rectangle) with a notch rectangle and Z-rod symbol underneath.

The symbols have been typed and categorized from the 350 or so stones that have been found, but experts still don’t know what they mean or how the stones were used. One theory is that the symbols represent a kind of heraldry for important families. The stones could have been grave markers (although archaeological evidence of burials associated with Pictish Symbol Stones is sparse) or perhaps boundary markers. For more information about the Picts and the symbol carvings, see Historic Scotland’s dedicated website.

Dr David Clarke, former Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum of Scotland, said: “The presence of two sets of symbols on a single stone is itself a very unusual feature relative to the corpus of symbol-bearing stones, but the presence of two sets of symbols on adjacent faces may be unique. The corresponding orientation of the sets of symbols is also a very unusual feature.”

The stone was declared a Treasure Trove following its discovery, and was reported to Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service (ACAS), who act as the regional archaeology service for Moray Council. Claire Herbert, regional archaeologist at ACAS, said: “Members of the public regularly contact the Archaeology Service about artefacts they have found, but the reporting of the Dandaleith Stone was something truly unexpected, a real rarity. I would like to thank the ploughman and landowner for reporting their find to us, and for their continued help and cooperation.

“To our knowledge, this is a truly unique find which has the potential to alter our understanding of Pictish Symbol Stones. We are privileged to be involved in the continued protection of such a wonderful object.”

As per the Treasure Trove law, once an object is declared treasure, the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel (SAFAP) determines which of the interested museums will be allocated the artifact and what sum it will pay the finder as an ex gratia payment. The amount of the payment is determined by how much it would cost to purchase an equivalent object on the antiquities market. In March of this year, the SAFAP allocated the Dandaleith Stone to the Elgin Museum which is just 15 miles north of Dandaleith.

While the museum raises the funds for the payment, display and transportation of this large and heavy piece of granite, the stone is being conserved and documented at Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation in Edinburgh.

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Mystery of skeleton in Penn Museum basement solved

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

A skeleton kept in an old wooden box in the basement of Philadelphia’s Penn Museum has regained his history, and what an illustrious one it is. Curator of the museum’s Physical Anthropology Section Dr. Janet Monge knew the skeleton was there, one of 2,000 complete skeletons in the collection, but it had no catalog card or any other identifying marks. It might have remained a mystery skeleton forever had it not been for one of my favorite things: an ambitious digitization project.

In 2012, the Penn Museum and the British Museum embarked on a collaborative mission to digitize all the artifacts, photographs, archives, maps, notes and other documents from Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations of Ur, now in southern Iraq, from 1922 and 1934. The 12 years of excavations were joint expeditions of the British Museum and the Penn Museum. As was common archaeological practice at the time, half of what they unearthed remained in country, while the other half was split evenly between the two institutions. Funded with a $1.28 million grant from the Leon Levy Foundation, Ur of the Chaldees: A Virtual Vision of Woolley’s Excavations will digitally reunite all the products of these seminal digs and make high resolution images of every pot fragment, cuneiform tablet, archaeological layer map, bull-headed lyre, etc. available for free in an online database.

Dr. William Hafford, Penn Museum’s Ur Digitization Project Manager, encountered in the course of his work some division lists recording which items were sent to Philadelphia and which to London. It was the list for the 1929-1930 dig season (a fateful season during which Katharine Woolley invited Agatha Christie to visit the dig where she met her future husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan) that caught his eye.

It said that the Penn Museum would receive, among other items, one tray of “mud of the flood” and two “skeletons.” Further research into the Museum’s object record database indicated that one of those skeletons, 31-17-404, deemed “pre-flood” and found in a stretched position, was recorded as “Not Accounted For” as of 1990.

Exploring the extensive records Woolley kept, Hafford was able to find additional information and images of the missing skeleton, including Woolley himself painstakingly removing an Ubaid skeleton intact, covering it in wax, bolstering it on a piece of wood, and lifting it out using a burlap sling. When he queried Dr. Monge about it, she had no record of such a skeleton in her basement storage—but noted that there was a “mystery” skeleton in a box.

When the box was opened later that day, it was clear that this was the same skeleton in Woolley’s field records, preserved and now reunited with its history.

The fact that he’s garnered the nickname “Noah” is a hint of that history. The skeleton is 6,500 years old, 2,000 years older than the remains found in the more glamorous Royal Cemetery of Ur. Woolley found it in Pit F, a trench he dug 50 feet deep under the surface of the archaeological site of Ur. When he reached 40 feet down, he countered a thick layer of water-lain silt that became known as the “flood layer.” This was the find that provided evidence of a great flood, not the world-destroying flood that would thousands of years later be described in the Biblical story of Noah, but a major local disaster that submerged Ur when it was an island surrounded by marshes. People regrouped after the flood, rebuilding Ur and burying their dead, but the story of the flood became legend and was incorporated in literature like the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Woolley kept digging underneath the flood layer and found 48 graves from the Ubaid period (5,500 B.C. to 4,000 B.C.). The Penn skeleton had been buried with ten pottery vessels at his feet in a grave dug into the silt, which indicates he had survived the flood.

Thanks to Woolley’s conscientious method of excavation and preservation — coating the skeleton and the soil around it in wax then covering it in plaster of Paris to keep it safe during the journey — Noah will be a great boon to research on this early period of Ur. Modern technology may be able to reveal much about his life, diet, health, perhaps cause of death, maybe even some DNA given the good condition of his teeth. Not much is known about the Ubaid period, so this research could fill in a great many blanks. And let’s not forget the silt. Archaeologists are learning amazing things from context soil nowadays.

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Caravaggio, Rubens receive Getty panel conservation grant

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

David with the Head of Goliath by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Stormy Landscape with Jupiter, Mercury, Philemon and Baucis by Peter Paul Rubens, both in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, are the latest recipients of a conservation grant from the Getty Foundation. They join the spectacular Ghent Altarpiece and Giorgio Vasari’s The Last Supper, brutalized in Florence’s great flood of 1966, as part of the Panel Paintings Initiative, a program that funds the conservation of damaged oil on wood panel masterpieces in order to train the panel painting conservators of tomorrow.

The €300,000 ($416,000) grant will be well-spent on dealing with the major issues plaguing both paintings. The Caravaggio depiction of the Biblical David holding his sword over his shoulder in one hand and the head of Goliath in the other, one of only two known surviving panel paintings by the Baroque genius, was savaged by past restorations that shaved the wood support to the thickness of a piece of paper. The plan is to remove the panels from the rigid wood cradle that is meant to keep them from warping and then, after they’ve had a chance to breathe a little and assume their natural positions, build a new cradle that is flexible and moves with the natural expansion and contraction of the wood. Conservators will also repair the panoply of fractures on the wood panels that you can see have already had an impact on the integrity of the paint.

The Rubens painting, which in a style typical of the Flemish Baroque adds figures from mythology or religion to a landscape, depicts Jupiter and Mercury leading their favored humans Philemon and Baucis away from a storm set to destroy their entire neighborhood. It’s a story told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book 8: 679-724 and while it wasn’t an unheard of subject for a painting, it wasn’t very popular and almost all of the previous treatments set the foursome inside Philemon and Baucis’ modest little cottage.

This work is immense at 20.85 meters (68.4 feet) wide and 14.60 meters (just short of 48 feet) high [EDIT: I misread the dimensions. The painting is actually 2 meters by 1.46 meters. Thank you for the correction, Maurizio!]. Rubens made it all himself rather than enlisting the aid of his workshop painters, and did so without a commission. He used 10 pieces of wood joined together to make the vast panel and each plank has aged differently. The aging has left gaps between the 10 pieces that are clear to the naked eye.

The grant will not only enable the Kunsthistorisches Museum experts to work with some of the most accomplished and experienced panel painting conservators in the world on solving the thorny problems of the Caravaggio and Rubens masterpieces, but it will create a core of expertise that will expand in central and eastern Europe. Five conservators from Krakow, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna will be trained on these works. They will then be able to bring the invaluable expertise they learn on the job back to their homes. Two of the five are already teachers at conservation schools, so they’ll be able to immediately pay it forward to their lucky students.

Panel paintings are extremely complex to conserve because unlike artworks on canvas, they require an in-depth knowledge of carpentry as well as paint conservation in order to repair properly. It takes years to develop the necessary abilities and expertise, and there aren’t a lot of people in the pipeline. With the vast majority of current panel painting conservators approaching retirement age within the decade, in 2009 the Getty Foundation launched the Panel Paintings Initiative to bridge the alarming knowledge and experience gap.

With two more years of grant-giving to go and more years after that of continuing work, the PPI has already proven a brilliant success. More than 20 conservators have received in-depth training and years of practical experience working on some of the world’s greatest masterpieces on wood, and hundreds of other conservators and students have learned from workshops offered as part of the conservation projects, in university classes taught by people connected to the projects and from published studies.

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British early Christian artifacts preserved in Viking graves

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

An Irish archaeologist has identified British early Christian artifacts in the collection of the University Museum of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). One is a part of a gold crozier that dates to the late 8th or early 9th century; the other is tin-plated wooden reliquary shaped like a church with kite-shaped metal fittings that once held gems or other decorations that have since fallen out. The crozier fragment and reliquary were discovered in 1961 in the grave of high status Viking woman in the central Norwegian town of Romsdal.

For the past year, Griffin Murray from the University College Cork has been researching Irish archaeological artifacts in Scandinavian collections, looking particularly for early Christian croziers that may have been pillaged by Viking raiders and recycled into jewelry and other objects worthy of being buried as grave goods. He initially thought the Romsdal crozier was Irish, but upon closer examination he found the decoration is characteristic of the north of England rather than Ireland.

The backing of the crozier fragment is semi-cylindrical in shape, which means it adorned the middle of the staff. It was cut in half and converted into an adornment of some kind, perhaps a brooch, the fate of the Celtic disc from a Viking woman’s grave in Lilleberge, Norway, discovered in storage at the British Museum early this year. Its age makes the crozier piece highly significant.

“The most striking aspect of this object is the era it comes from. This is the oldest known English fragment, and the only one that dates from before 1000. If the Norwegian Vikings had not stolen it, it would most probably have been lost,” Murray said of the University Museum’s little piece of history. [...]

[NTNU curator Jon Anders] Risvaag believe that the Viking raids may have saved the museum’s piece of crozier, noting that most of the croziers that remained in the British Isles were melted down for other uses.

“In Norway and other Scandinavian countries, these artefacts were buried as grave goods, which is why the finest objects are usually found in gravesites,” he said. “This tradition appears to have saved one of the oldest croziers we know of today.”

The Viking Age dawned with the 793 raid on the priory of Lindisfarne in Northumbria, the earliest known Viking raid on the west. The crozier was made around that same period in the general area, so it could conceivably have been loot from one of the earliest Viking incursions on the British Isles.

Here’s a contemporary reaction to the Lindisfarne raid from a letter written by Alcuin of York (pdf), a church deacon and scholar at the court of Charlemagne, to Ethelred, King of Northumbria:

Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold, the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples. And where first, after the departure of St Paulinus from York, the Christian religion in our race took its rise, there misery and calamity have begun. Who does not fear this? Who does not lament this as if his country were captured? Foxes pillage the chosen vine, the heritage of the Lord has been given to a people not his own; and where there was the praise of God, are now the games of the Gentiles; the holy festivity has been turned to mourning.

I wonder what Alcuin would make of the fact that the very despoliation of those ornaments ensured their survival.

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Four pelvises on a stick found in Jutland peat bog

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

The Alken Enge wetlands in East Jutland, Denmark, continues to produce exceptional and exceptionally gruesome finds. Thanks to the history-preserving wonder of peat, the remains of more than 200 Iron Age warriors who were sacrificed after a defeat in battle around 1 A.D. have been unearthed from in excavations from the 1950s to the present. The 2012 dig found a skull with a hole in the back from a projectile or spear, a thighbone hacked in half, numerous other bones and well-preserved weapons including an axe with its entire wooden shaft intact. The teeth on the pierced skull were in good enough condition for a testable sample of DNA to be extracted.

This year’s excavation has discovered evidence that the sacrifice of victims didn’t just happen in the immediate aftermath of the battle, but rather that remains were left to rot where they fell for six months before being butchered for ritual purposes. Cut and scrape marks on bones mutely testify to how the rotted flesh was removed from the bones. The bones were then sorted and collated for sacrifice: bones were bundled together, skulls were crushed, and in one particularly gruesome find, four pelvic bones were mounted on a wooden stick.

Here’s a 3D video composite of the pelvises in situ:

Once sorted and desecrated, the bones were thrown into the ancient lake that would become today’s bog along with animal remains and clay pots that archaeologists believe probably contained food offerings.

“We are fairly sure that this was a religious act. It seems that this was a holy site for a pagan religion – a sacred grove – where the victorious conclusion of major battles was marked by the ritual presentation and destruction of the bones of the vanquished warriors,” adds [Aarhus University Project Manager] Mads Kähler Holst.

Geological studies have revealed that back in the Iron Age, the finds were thrown into the water from the end of a tongue of land that stretched out into Mossø lake, which was much larger back then than it is today.

“Most of the bones we find here are spread out over the lake bed seemingly at random, but the new finds have suddenly given us a clear impression of what actually happened. This applies in particular to the four pelvic bones. They must have been threaded onto the stick after the flesh was cleaned from the skeletons,” explains Field Director Ejvind Hertz from Skanderborg Museum.

We still don’t know exactly where the fallen warriors came from, whether they were local fighters or other Germanic peoples attempting to move northwards under pressure from Roman activity across the Alps.

If you’re fortunate enough to be summering in Jutland right now, the Alken Enge site will be open to the public for guided tours on Thursday, July 31st, and 3:00 PM and 5:00 PM. The tours are free but you must register ahead of time so they can control numbers. The maximum number of people allowed is 200 per tour. You can register online on the website of the Skanderborg Museum here.

The artifacts and remains from the Alken Enge digs are being conserved at the Skanderborg Museum, and some of the more exceptional finds are on display there, including the four pelvises on a stick. The exhibition has been four years in the making and covers not just the history of the site, what the science says took place there 2,000 years ago, but also the history of archaeological explorations of the bog from the 19th century to the high tech laboratory work of modern day archaeologists. As soon as I find that winning lottery ticket someone dropped, I’m making a beeline for this show.

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King Richard III Visitor Centre opens in Leicester

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

Leicester’s new King Richard III Visitor Centre opened on Saturday. The £4 million ($6.8 million) museum was built in the former Alderman Newton Boy’s School, a Victorian brick building that over the years has housed a boy’s school, a girl’s school and most recently the Leicester Grammar School which closed in 2008. The building has been empty since then, but location is everything in real estate, and it just happens to be adjacent to the council parking lot under which the remains of King Richard III were discovered in September of 2012. Three months later, the city council providently bought the school building.

The inside of the school has now been transformed into a voyage through the life and death of Richard III, and of the archaeological excavation that against all conceivable odds, found the king’s mortal remains. The ground floor is dedicated to Richard III’s life, his controversial rise to the throne at the expense of the nephews he declared illegitimate and locked up in the Tower of London never to be seen again, the three decades of conflict between the Lancaster and York branches of the Plantagenet dynasty known as the Wars of the Roses, and Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

The story is told through high tech audio-visual displays where video projections recreate the places where Richard lived and died in an atmospheric, stylized manner. A digital reconstruction of Grey Friars Church shows visitors what the medieval church that used to stand where they are standing looked like. It includes a virtual visualization of Richard’s tomb as it would have looked after Henry VII had a proper tomb built a few years after Bosworth.

The second floor focuses on the excavation and takes an unusual approach that makes the quotidian elements of the dig into artifacts for exhibit. The boots worn by Richard III Society’s Philippa Langley at the dig site are on display, as are the hard had and neon yellow vest Mathew Morris was wearing when he first unearthed King Richard’s bones on the first day of the excavation. The highlight is a 3D-printed replica of the skeleton. The original will be buried at Leicester Cathedral next year. The cathedral is just across the street from the former school, so people will be able to make an easy day of it and see the tomb then walk over to the visitor center.

The best part of the new center is that the site of Richard III’s Grey Friars grave has been integrated into it. It’s a minimalist space, no glowing blue neon or elaborate set pieces, as it should be given that it was a king’s grave for 500 years, with clear plexiglass over the burial site. The only video element is a subtle projection of the skeleton in the position it was in when the archaeologists found it.

There is very little information on the center’s website. Right now it’s all about directions and ticket bookings, but I hope they flesh it out further in the days to come. You can get a glimpse of the King Richard III Visitor Centre in this video:

I don’t want to judge without seeing, but it looks a little low-information for my taste. Lots of video projections, few period artifacts, boots and hazard vests from the dig, but not much about the science (DNA, osteological analysis, radiocarbon dating) that actually identified the king. Or about the 3D printing process, for that matter, a subject I am completely obsessed with, especially in regards to archaeological and museum applications. I’m glad they didn’t just repave the burial site and keep it a parking lot, which was the original plan, let’s recall, so at the very least the center has that going for it, and that’s quite a lot.

I’d love to hear an eye witness report, so please do share your impressions should you visit the center.

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La Belle moves from freeze dryer to museum

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

La Belle, one of the ships French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, sailed to the Gulf of Mexico on his ill-fated colonizing mission, sank in a storm in Texas’ Matagorda Bay in 1686. In 1995, the wreck of the 54-1/2-foot-long supply ship was found in excellent condition, the bottom third preserved intact with its contents by the mud of the sea floor. Archaeologists from the Texas Historical Commission spent two years excavating the wreck, building a cofferdam around it, draining the water and then digging it out of the mud. They were able to recover the hull of the ship and 700,000 artifacts, including swords, cannons, bronze hawk bells, pottery, thousands of glass beads and mirrors intended for trade and a skeleton so well preserved that there was still tendon tissue on the bones and a large amount of brain material in the skull.

As with other exceptional raised shipwrecks like the Mary Rose and the Vasa, La Belle’s wooden hull needed to be conserved immediately to ensure it wouldn’t dry out too quickly and warp or shrink. The ship’s timbers were sent to the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M where they were soaked in polyethylene glycol (PEG), a polymer that replaces water in wood and stabilizes it. PEG treatment takes a long, long time, like decades, and since it’s petroleum-derived, the cost rises with the price of oil.

When the budget for the conservation ballooned from $330,000 to $1.4 million solely because of PEG prices, in late 2010 conservators changed course and decided to put the ship timbers in a custom-built freeze dryer 40 feet long and eight feet wide. Kept at a constant temperature of 60 degrees below zero, the seawater bound to the wood sublimates — transforms directly from solid to gas — in significantly less time than it takes for PEG to replace water.

To ensure that the timbers retained their shape and size, the hull was disassembled and each piece tagged and scanned. Molds were made so researchers had the original shape of each part for comparison. After running some tests on smaller items, the ship components were placed in the freeze dryer for four to six months until all the bound water was gone. The wreck of La Belle has 600 component parts, including the keel, keelson, ceiling planking, mast and futtocks (those curved ribs in the ship’s frame), so it took several loads to dry them all.

Reconstruction of the ship was scheduled to begin in October of 2013 at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, but it has taken a little longer than originally planned. On Thursday, July 17th, the largest portions of La Belle were loaded onto an 18-wheeler and transported from the Riverside Campus of Texas A&M to the Bullock Museum. Included in this first delivery were the 800-pound keel, the 1,100-pound keelson, the forefoot, more than 20 floor planks, buttresses, the mast, 40 first futtocks, more than 20 second futtocks and 25 third futtocks. (Yes I am completely in love with the word futtocks and plan to use it as a curse word on a daily basis from now on.)

On October 25th, the museum will debut a new exhibition, La Belle: The Ship That Changed History, which in addition to traditional displays of artifacts, maps and pictures of the excavation and conservation, will most excitingly feature the public reassembly of the hull. Reconstruction should be completed in May of next year, after which the hull will be encased in glass and placed on display in the center of the museum. A replica of the rest of the ship will be built around the encased hull and visitors will be allowed to walk on the glass over the original ship so they can look down at it and all around at the replica. Such a brilliant idea. This is going to be a blockbuster exhibition.

There will also be a “4D” film, Shipwrecked, for visitors to enjoy. From the museum’s upcoming exhibits page:

Created in collaboration with award-winning production house, Cortina Productions, the film will be on view daily in the Bullock’s popular Texas Spirit Theater, a 4D venue that offers an immersive experience combining the high-drama of 3D with sensory effects built into the seats and environment. Filmed on board one of the few sea-worthy vessels modeled after ships of the 1600s, the film dramatizes the story of La Salle’s venture, revealing the struggles, personalities, and conflicts through the eyes of one of the only survivors of the expedition, Pierre Talon. Pierre’s family was recruited as colonists for the voyage, and at the age of 10, he was separated from his mother and siblings and sent by La Salle to learn the language of the Caddo people in the hopes of establishing trade and facilitating the expedition. Adopted by the tribe, at the age of 14 Pierre was subsequently captured by the Spanish. In the film, he recounts to his captors all that he saw from the moment the ships were setting sail from France.

This news story has a brief overview of La Salle’s mission, some great footage of the hull during the conservation process and a phenomenal mockup of the exhibit with the encased hull and replica built around it that seriously looks real.

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Stolen Matisse returns to Venezuela

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Odalisque in Red Pants is back in Venezuela after more than a decade on the lam. The 1925 Matisse painting of a semi-nude woman wearing a pair of red pants was stolen from the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art as early as 2000. Nobody knows for certain exactly when it was stolen because the thieves replaced it with a fake which was not noticed until 2002. As if that weren’t embarrassing enough, it was a really, really bad fake, too, and not just in the small details that experts would recognize. The vase in the front right of the canvas was the wrong color. Not the wrong shade. The wrong color. The original is yellow while the fake is blue.

Matisse made a series of Odalisques in the 1920s. He decorated a corner of his Nice apartment in Moorish style with a low couch, fretwork screens, carpets and colorful wall hangings. He returned again and again to theme of the harem concubine standing, sitting, reclining in sensual poses, clad in languorously draped fabrics or nothing at all. Matisse explained his motivation thus: “I paint odalisques in order to paint the nude. Otherwise, how is the nude to be painted without being artificial? But also, I know they exist. I was in Morocco. I saw them.” There are Matisse Odalisques in museums all over the world, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and Copenhagen’s Statens Museum for Kunst. Venezuela’s Odalisque in Red Pants was the only one in a Latin American museum.

It was purchased from a New York art gallery in 1981 by Sofia Imber, art critic, collector and founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art, for $480,000. Its estimated worth today is $3 million. The museum started in Imber’s garage in 1973 became a world-class museum with a collection of about 3,000 works by contemporary masters like Picasso, Braque, Chagall, Kandinsky and Botero.

The theft of the painting came to light in late 2002 when Miami-based Venezuelan gallery owner Genaro Ambrosino alerted museum officials that he had been approached by someone attempting to sell him the Odalisque in Red Pants. After no further leads on the theft for nine years, in 2011 the F.B.I. found out that a Cuban man was attempting to sell the painting in Miami. Agents made a deal with the seller, Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman, to buy the painting for $740,000 and in July of 2012, agents met with Guzman and a woman named María Martha Ornelas, wife of Guzman’s “Mexican partner,” who carried the Matisse rolled up in a poster tube from Mexico City to a Miami hotel. They told the agents during their sales pitch that the painting was stolen by museum employees and replaced with the crappy fake. After examining the work, the F.B.I. agents arrested the would-be sellers.

Repatriation discussions have been ongoing ever since. Finally on Monday the painting arrived at the Maiquetia International Airport in Caracas where it was greeted by Culture Minister Fidel Barbarito and a live television broadcast.

“It’s generally well preserved,” Culture Minister Fidel Barbarito told local television from Caracas airport where a white box containing the painting was shown upon arrival after a court in south Florida authorized its return.

“This is another achievement of the Bolivarian revolution, of a government in touch with the arts,” the minister said, referring to the country’s 15-year-old socialist government that began in 1999 with the election of the late Hugo Chavez.

Barbarito said the painting would undergo a delicate 72-hour “acclimatization process” and be back on display at the museum in around two weeks. There was damage to the edges of the work but not the painting itself, he said.

That statement about the Bolivarian revolution was a not at all subtle reference to the controversy that has plagued the Venezuelan government’s approach to the arts since January of 2001 when then-President Hugo Chávez announced on his weekly radio broadcast that he had fired Sofia Imber as director of her own museum because “culture ha[d] become elitist as a result of being managed by elites,” and that he was firing her and other “elites” in the first salvo of a “Bolivarian cultural revolution.” The purge was roundly criticized by the art world.

The subsequent discovery of the stolen Matisse and unnoticed fake didn’t exactly cast this “revolution” in a positive light, hence the big show at the airport on Monday.

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